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Summer loan scandals tarnish city hall's reputation

By Melissa DePetris

This summer, President Bill Clinton, LAW '73, was not the only government official to acknowledge a "critical lapse in judgment." As outraged New Haven residents listened to tales of corruption in City Hall, Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., admitted that his approval of a loan to a top aide was improper.

In a summer of scandal that shocked New Haven, Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. admitted, 'I screwed up.'

On Jun. 10, the New Haven Advocate revealed that DeStefano had approved a loan to Executive Assistant Andrea Jackson-Brooks that violated federal policies. The terms of the $58,750, interest-free loan required no payments for 10 years and forgave half the sum at the time of payment. The money belonged to New Haven's federally-sponsored Livable City Initiative (LCI), a program organized by DeStefano to assist low-income families.

According to Paul Bass, the Advocate Associate Editor who uncovered the Jackson-Brooks fiasco, this misuse of federal money took funds away from needy citizens, sabotaged one of the mayor's best programs, and confirmed the notion that with politicians,"patronage is often placed above policy."

Jackson-Brooks ostensibly received the money to remove lead paint from her home after her grandchild suffered lead poisoning. The loan is particularly appalling because Jackson-Brooks does not qualify as low-income and should not be eligible for LCI loans. Mishandling of LCI money may have prevented New Haven residents who are truly low-income residents from securing loans for removal of lead paint from their own homes. Indeed, the Advocate reported that Jackson-Brooks is the only recipient ever of an LCI loan designated for lead paint removal.

Julio Gonzalez, CC '99, Alder of Ward One, said, "Some of my constituents have expressed to me their anger that they have had difficulty getting access to resources from City Hall. This incident makes it appear that only those in power have guaranteed access."

Jackson-Brooks and LCI Director Frank Alvarado both contested the accusations that the loan was unethical and illegal. DeStefano, for his part, insisted that he had signed the loan on the advice of Corporation Counsel Patricia Cofrancesco.

But by August, DeStefano abandoned that defense strategy and admitted that the Jackson-Brooks loan was unethical. He then fired Jackson-Brooks, Alvarado, and Cofrancesco and attempted to remove corruption from his office by stopping the Jackson-Brooks loan and reviewing all other LCI loans. He appointed three replacement aides with no known ties to the Democratic party machine. Apparently not satisfied, the FBI began an independent investigation of the Mayor's administration, seizing files related to LCI and other City Hall initiatives.

Bass believes that the LCI affair was not an aberration but rather one manifestation of the "climate of corruption that DeStefano encouraged." Indeed, incidents of corruption, or at least dubious legitimacy, characterize the DeStefano administration. Lowlights include the mayor's choice of a housing inspector who, within a year, was accused of larceny and accepting a bribe, a missing $2.3 million of city housing money that has never been accounted for, a salary paid to his ally, the Reverend Bosie Kimber, though there is no paperwork proving any work was ever completed, and a slew of shady loans to entities already owing the city money. The most shocking of these was the loan to Joe Nacca, a businessman to whom no bank would lend money because he was convicted of a felony and risked going to jail in the immediate future.

"Although it took DeStefano too long to admit to his wrongdoing, he has taken good steps with respect to LCI. However, he has still not acknowledged the deeper roots of the problem," Bass said. Bass maintains that DeStefano, like Clinton, has enjoyed popular support for his policy despite weak personal support. The recent scandals thus leave him vulnerable if a strong opponent emerges in the next election.

Michael Kuczkowski, DeStefano's spokesperson, does not share Bass's view of the broader implications of the LCI case. "DeStefano signed the loan to Jackson-Brooks based upon advice from top officials that everything was aboveboard," Kuczkowski said. "When concerns were raised as to whether this was an appropriate loan, DeStefano asked for the resignations of three top aides because he felt that public trust was tarnished by the allegations."

"These events have been upsetting for New Haven residents, but they merely exemplify the lack of balance between the executive and the legislature and the need for better, more transparent government," Gonzalez added. "[The LCI loan scandal] has become a springboard to address related issues and has created heightened consciousness about potential corruption in government. The mayor has been assertive in addressing the immediate problems and any failures that remain are the collective responsibility of executive and legislative branches going beyond the mayor and including city-wide leadership."

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